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Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts

© PhotoDisc / GettyImagesEvery year there’s controversy over the use of punctuation in public places. Often it’s the humble apostrophe causing trouble, and so it was in Cambridge recently when the city council removed the mark from street signs. Unhappy pedants armed with markers set about replacing the missing apostrophes, which were later officially reinstated.

One anxious campaigner said: ‘Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?’ Answer: No. This kind of extreme rhetoric, though not uncommon, is unfounded. Errant apostrophes do not signal the decline of punctuation (or civilization), still less its imminent ruin. But they do remind us that punctuation style is in constant, gradual flux, and varies from one context to another. And, yes, they remind us that people make mistakes.



The apostrophe has always generated difficulty and dispute. Even editors differ over its correct use. In the familiar phrase do’s and don’ts, Macmillan Dictionary includes an apostrophe in do’s, while other authorities, such as the Oxford Manual of Style, prescribe the more consistent – but odder-looking – dos and don’ts. There are reasonable arguments for and against both styles. Don’t’s is also used, though the double apostrophe puts many people off.

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity. But I dont think theres any difficulty in reading this (non-standard) apostrophe-less sentence, for example. And few readers would stumble over Shakespeare’s ‘My fathers brother’ or ‘Ile make a ghost of him that lets me’.

In a post on the apostrophe’s possible future, I said worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is often an excuse for people to voice unease and displeasure at other aspects of society; we become attached to what are ultimately trivial parts of usage, as though any change in the status quo were an assault on everything we hold dear. But the status quo of a living language is forever mutable: apostrophizing 1950’s was the norm not so long ago; now it’s more usually 1950s. And were – sorry, we’re, still communicating quite capably.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

12 Comments

  • Stan:

    Once you absorb a new house style
    (Though that may take a little while),
    You’re sure to function with great ease
    When dealing with apostrophes.

  • Nice work, Marc!

    I see Swift used plural “idea’s”,
    Which many would find beastly,
    Yet it’s shared without prejudice
    In the great grammar of Priestley.

  • More troublesome to me than the questionable use of apostrophes in public places is the use of “hooked harbingers of doubt” – quotation marks – to express emphasis. These are often used by merchants (“Fresh” Fish,” “Cold” Sandwiches,” etc. My favorite was a handwritten sign in a storefront in Portchester, NY many years ago – “Truck” for sale. Well, was it really a truck, or were they just calling it a truck? Is the fish truly fresh or are they just saying it’s fresh?

  • Kristen: The use of quotation marks for emphasis (and other non-standard functions) is something I’ve looked at on my own blog – but it might be worth revisiting here, so watch this space. Like you, I find that these marks can have the opposite effect to what was intended: “homemade” stew or “real” cream cheese, anyone? They shouldn’t cast doubt, but they do.

  • When did we become so lazy as a society that to install an apostrophe has become an effort. The apostrophe in a word can change the meaning entirely and maintains the flow of meaning, especially when reading, without having to make note of an implication. There was an article a week or so ago about the elimination of the comma, which I don’t see happening; or we’ll wind up at the mercy of run-on sentences.

  • Though by no means everybody knows that lets in “Ile make a ghost of him that lets me” means ‘hinders’ rather than ‘prevents’. Hamlet is telling his friends not to hold him back, or he’ll kill them.

  • Mary Ann: I don’t think it’s about society being too lazy to add apostrophes. In certain cases it may be, but in others they’re added, which indicates something else. Uncertainty and variation have always dogged the mark; this scholarly history (PDF) of the apostrophe might interest you. Genuine ambiguity over its misuse is possible, for example with plural possessives, but it seldom happens in practice. Reading G.B. Shaw I don’t find the flow of meaning significantly hindered despite the scarcity of apostrophes.

    John: I just revisited the etymology and see that that use of let literally means ‘make late’; the tie with late goes way back.

  • I learned the uses of the apostrophe as part of the rules of English Grammar, i.e. possession, plural possession the apostrophe ends the word, contractions (you are, you’re–it is, it’s). These words have “counterparts” as part of possessive pronouns “your & its” which might confuse some, otherwise, how difficult is this?
    Parenthetically, time reference, “o’clock” is a contraction “of the clock”.

  • Mary Ann: Difficult enough for many people, evidently. Not everyone received the same level of education, and for other speakers English is not a first language. But even educated L1 speakers of English find some aspects of apostrophe use tricky, and always have. Unfortunately, the prevalence of erroneous forms such as it’s for its encourages their spread.

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